The Cat Falls
Cat o' nine tails
The thin rope "tails" symbolized a feline's proverbial nine lives, derived from its ability to land on its feet after a fall, claws outspread. Once the guilty man was bound in position, hands above his head around a whipping post or tree, the sergeant of the guard "let the cat out of the bag" and began to claw at the man's back with its blood-stained knots, ten per tail.
At the time of the American Revolution, the British Army's limit on lashes was flexible—up to as many as 500, 1,000, or even 2,000 lashes.1 The Massachusetts legislature, however, imposed the New Testament maximum of 39 strokes, and that standard was established in the Continental Congress's Articles of War of 1775.2
George Washington was commissioned to develop a Continental Army, but at first he found himself in tenuous command of an unruly mob of colonists fiercely proud of their independence from authority, and determined not to yield it to anyone. Washington's solution was to literally whip his army into shape; he encouraged Congress to raise the limit to 100 lashes, which they did in the 1776 update of the Articles of War. Out of his own frustration he tried to persuade the Congressmen to raise it to 500 strokes in 1781, but they declined. Nevertheless, courts martial managed to wring the maximum pain from the 100-stroke allowance by spreading out the process over a period of four successive days, as Lewis and Clark did in Alexander Willard's case.
In the next revision of the Articles (1806) the limit was reduced to 50 lashes.3 It was not a significant change, inasmuch as flogging had never really been very effective as a deterrent. On the contrary, as John Francis Hamtramck, commander at Fort Wayne, Indiana Territory, wrote to General Anthony Wayne in 1794: "The . . . allowance of one hundred lashes, allowed by government, does not appear a sufficient inducement for a rascal to act the part of an honest man." The scars had become badges of macho stoicism and psuedo-heroic endurance.4
Flogging was abolished in the Union Army in 1861, partly to encourage recruitment, and partly in response to persistent humanitarian objections from the general public.5 The British Army and Navy kept it up until 1881.
Running the gauntlet
The other punishment Washington favored was "running the gauntlet." British Army and Navy traditions had reserved this form for thieves. The offender was forced to run between two rows of men who struck him with ropes, clubs, switches, or bundles of switches. A subaltern or a sergeant would walk backwards in front of the prisoner with a sword—or an espontoon—pressed against the man's belly to keep him from running, while forcing him forward with a rope tied to the man's wrists. The word gauntlet is said to be a variant of the 18th-century Swedish gantlope, meaning "a running course."
1. Maurer Maurer, "Military Justice Under Washington," Military Affairs, Vol. 28 (1964-65), 11.
2. II Corinthians, 11. 24: "five times received I forty stripes save [minus] one."
3. Theodore J. Crackel, Mr. Jefferson's Army: Political and Social Reform of the Military Establishment, 1801-1809 (New York: New York University Press, 1987), 43, 85.
4. Letter of December 5, 1794, "The Letters of Col. John Francis Hamtramck," Historical Collections: Collections and Researches Made by the Michigan Pioneer and Historical Society, 34:734. Cited in Robert J. Moore, Jr., and Michael Haynes, Tailor Made, Trail Worn: Army Life, Clothing, and Weapons of the Corps of Discovery (Helena, Montana: Farcountry Press, 2003), 51.
5. Russell F. Weigley, History of the United States Army (New York: Macmillan, 1967), 231.
Funded in part by a grant from the National Park Service, Challenge Cost Share Program.